Ghosts by Gaslight

Last night my brother Mark and I went to our second Gaslight Anthem concert, this one in downtown Raleigh’s tiny Lincoln Theater, a perfect venue for getting up close and personal with rock and roll.  On the way home, I remarked that I’ve noticed that The Gaslight Anthem’s songs are constantly referring to ghosts.  Mark added that they tend to write about radios a lot as well.  I’ll let Mark treat the symbolic valences of radios (maybe he could do that on his podcast, Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This?), but let me give you a few of my thoughts on the ghost imagery in the Gaslight canon.

First of all, it’s everywhere.  Here are just a few samples from last year’s album Handwritten:

  • “I danced with your ghost” (“45”)
  • “All of our heroes were failures or ghosts” (“Biloxi Parish”)
  • “I already live with too many ghosts” (“National Anthem”)

I’m sure a thorough or even a cursory listen through the catalog would turn up many more examples.

Invariably, these ghosts aren’t spirits of dead people returned to complete unfinished business.  In the Gaslight Anthem universe, which looks a lot like a Christian universe much of the time, the dead go On (to echo Albus Dumbledore).  This is very clear in the masterful requiem “The ’59 Sound” (“when we float out into the ether/into the everlasting arms”) and in “Biloxi Parish,” one of the few almost cheerful songs on the new album (“when you pass through from this world/I hope you ask to take me with you/or that I don’t have to wait too long”).

No, the ghosts in The Gaslight Anthem’s repertoire are memories–not mere memories, for as the songs heart-wrenchingly demonstrate, memories are powerful and, far too often, malevolent.  I can think of only one example in which ghost imagery is positive, and it’s “Biloxi Parish” again.  In that song, which I think is highly romantic, I don’t think the line “I will eventually haunt you” is meant to be sinister.  But that’s the exception.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the main theme of all of TGA’s music is figuring out how to go on living in the shadows of a devastating past–the shadow of a failure of a father, the shadow of a burned-out New Jersey factory, the shadows of girls named Virginia and Maria.

The ghost references go all the way back to the first album (“like I was a ghost in your dreams” in “Red in the Morning”) and are used to convey a number of different ideas.  For example, “Old Haunts” (which I always thing of as The Gaslight Anthem’s more depressing answer to Bruce Springsteen’s already-sad “Glory Days”) is about people who voluntarily become ghosts by refusing to move forward, always falling back on “if you’d have known me when.”  Even when they’re not using the word “ghost,” The Gaslight Anthem are singing about ghosts: “Keepsake,” the saddest song on the latest album, is about exorcising those angry memories–or, to use the song’s own metaphor, burying them deep at the bottom of a river.  Another theme addressed without explicitly employing the ghost imagery, though the allusion is certainly there, is the determination to avoid creating haunting memories for others.  This is why the speaker in “The Spirit of Jazz” asks so earnestly, “Was I good to you/the wife of my youth?”

If all these ghost lyrics were accompanied by minor keys and funereal tempos, they would be maudlin.  But many of The Gaslight Anthem’s most haunted songs are among their loudest, fastest, and most danceable.  Part of this, I think, is defiance: Hey ghosts, you can’t stop me from playing rock and roll.  But also, maybe–I don’t want to presume to read something that isn’t there–maybe there’s also some hope for what we’ll find after we hear our “favorite song one last time.”

Advertisements

Two texts that inquire into the moment just before death

“If I Only Knew”

a poem by Nelly Sachs, Holocaust survivor  and Nobel laureate

If I only knew

On what your last look rested.

Was it a stone that had drunk

So many last looks that they fell

Blindly upon its blindness?

Or was it earth,

Enough to fill a shoe,

And black already

With so much parting

And with so much killing?

Or was it your last road

That brought you a farewell from all the roads

You had walked?

A puddle, a bit of shining metal,

Perhaps the buckle of your enemy’s belt,

Or some other small augury

Of heaven?

Or did this earth,

Which lets no one depart unloved,

Send you a bird-sign through the air,

Reminding your soul that it quivered

In the torment of its burnt body?

“The ’59 Sound”

a song by The Gaslight Anthem, the greatest presently active band in any genre

Well, I wonder which song they’re gonna play when we go.
I hope it’s something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow.
When we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms,
I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life.
’cause the chains I been hearing now for most of my life.

Did you hear the ’59 Sound coming through on Grandmama’s radio?
Did you hear the rattling chains in the hospital walls?
Did you hear the old gospel choir when they came to carry you over?
Did you hear your favorite song one last time?

And I wonder were you scared when the metal hit the glass?
See, I was playing a show down the road
when your spirit left your body.
And they told me on the front lawn.
I’m sorry I couldn’t go,
but I still know the song and the words and her name and the reasons.
And I know ’cause we were kids and we used to hang.

[Chorus]

Young boys, young girls, ain’t supposed to die on a Saturday night.